This year the festival’s media launch came on the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal and following boycott campaign. We talked with Colas about diversity in film, and the personal struggles that inspired her to start the festival.
What was your initial reaction to the Academy shutting out black actors for a second year in a row?
“When I first saw it I thought, wow they did it again? I couldn’t believe that this year was even worse for actors of color. I thought the Academy had learned its lesson from last year, but obviously not. Of course I totally relate to the situation, I know exactly how painful it can be when you don't feel represented. I know it is when you have to work 10 times harder to get ten times less the reward. If the boycott was the way then so be it. I'm not a huge fan of boycotts but you have to do what you have to do.
You mentioned being able to relate to being shut out of the industry, is that part of the reason you started the Black Film Festival?
Absolutely. Over 12 yrs ago I came to Canada from Haiti where I was the most popular actress in the country and had just won an award for best actress in a movie. I promised the whole country I’m gonna go to Canada and screen this film everywhere. When i got to Montreal, I submitted the film everywhere I could and no one accepted it. When I would ask for feedback, they would say they don’t have time to explain. In my humiliation, sadness and pain I thought, I’m not even worth an explanation. I did not have a voice, I felt like i was being silenced. I decided Montreal deserves another festival and the Montreal International Haitian Film festival was born. Then five years later it became the Montreal International Black film festival where we have had guests from all over including Paul Haggis and Harry Belafonte. Today it's considered the biggest black film fest in Canada.
About four or five years ago I met a filmmaker named Sandra Whitely from Toronto who submitted her film to the festival. At the end of the week she said we need to bring this to Toronto. It had actually been a dream of mine for the longest time but we thought hey Toronto has so many festivals already. But she insisted. And thankfully Shaw Media and Global News who were already sponsoring the Montreal festival decided to come on board for Toronto. The support in Toronto has been overwhelming, we are especially thankful to TD Bank.
What's the process like for selecting films for the festival?
The programming team has such a tough job. They have to watch hundreds of films a year, it's a very hard process. Many times they have to let go of some wonderful films just because we don’t have space, and it’s heartbreaking when we have to say no to an awesome movie. And we make a point of responding to any inquiries for feedback if a film is not accepted.
In terms of eligibility, every film with a black story, black content, black reality is eligible to apply from around the globe. We don’t care about the filmmaker’s race. We just judge the film. In fact it is more interesting for us when a non black director is making a film with a black story.
This year we have 44 films from 20 countries, some with breathtaking special effects, and we’re very excited to welcome our Hollywood guest, Alfre Woodard.
Any favourite films?
That is the toughest question that everyone always asks me! You cannot ask a mother to choose her favourite child. But I will say this, and this is very important. 99 percent of the films at the festival are only being screened once, so that means it's a unique chance for Torontonians to come and see those films. The vast majority of the films will not be coming out in theatres because they are independent films. I will tell you the films I think you should definitely not miss.
The Two of Us, which is the opening night film. The director is flying in from South Africa to be there.
Breathe Umphefumlo, another South African film and it’s the festival closer. South African cinema is one of the best in Africa. It is such high quality, they are really setting the trend in Africa.
The Black Panther Vanguard of the Revolution by Stanley Nelson commemorates 50 years since Black panther, movement. This film was screened in Montreal to tremendous response so we’re excited to show it in Toronto.
Soul On Ice, I love this film! You know I joke with my husband and my other white friends, hockey is your kind of stuff. But to know that we had all black leagues in Canada is just mind blowing! The world should know this.
Knucklehead, a film about mental illness, really touched me because it's a taboo subject especially in our community. Alfre Woodard stars in this film, and after we do our tribute to her, we will screen the film. Then both her and the director will be there for a talk back. It’s a film that really will make us stop and think.
What are your plans for the future of the festival?
I have to admit that I have never had the opportunity to dream that the festival would even be where it is today. Everyone just surprised me in the best possible way. I mean we had Harry Belafonte accept a humanitarian award from us in 2012 even before the Oscars gave him one. And last year we had Paul Haggis accept the social impact award. I just never thought it would happen this fast. I dream of Toronto having one of the biggest black film festivals in North America and in the world.
In the future I really want to develop the market side of the film festival more. We aim for filmmakers to be getting big deals out of the festival just like at Sundance or TIFF or Cannes.
We’d also like to see more government support. We had support from the Ontario Arts Council for the first time this year and that is amazing. We’d love to have more of that. We are so grateful to TD Bank, Shaw and Global News and G987FM for stepping up to support diversity in film.
The Toronto Black Film Festival runs Feb 10 to 14 2016.